We may all have grown up on PB&J, but times have certainly changed. "The prevalence of peanut allergy is growing and will likely continue to grow," says Parents advisor Hugh Sampson, MD, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. There's no hard data showing that reactions to foods like milk, eggs, and wheat are also rising, but many doctors believe that they are. Six to 8 percent of children under age 4 have some sort of food allergy, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and babies and toddlers are most vulnerable. Although only about 1 percent of kids are allergic to peanuts, that number represents a 50 percent increase in the past decade. More than 200 people in the U.S. die from an allergic reaction to food each year, and most fatalities are related to peanuts. Sesame allergy, which was almost unheard of a few decades ago, is becoming increasingly common in kids, as are reports of allergic reactions to other seeds and their oils. While many kids get diagnosed after a sudden reaction, lots of children have less dramatic symptoms that parents may not realize are caused by a food allergy.
Unfortunately, even top experts aren't sure what's causing this surge -- and they're actually more confused than ever about how to help prevent food allergies. For years, doctors have told parents who have any allergies themselves to delay feeding their children eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, and fish -- but now the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that this strategy might not be beneficial after all. "It's definitely a frustrating situation for parents who want to protect their kids," says Scott Sicherer, MD, author of Understanding and Managing Your Child's Food Allergies.